If you've walked by Gotham Bar and Grill, chances are you've noticed a series of New York Times reviews from over the years hanging in the window. They're all three-spots. Despite the fact that he's considered a pioneer of modern American cooking, the man largely responsible for those accolades, chef Alfred Portale, doesn't really attribute those successes to virtuosity or creativity. Instead, he points to the importance of consistency and understanding the stakes involved when operating a large New York City restaurant as the most vital factors. In the following interview, Portale analyzes Gotham over the years, his personality as a chef and businessman, the evolution of restaurant culture and criticism, and his plans for the future.
Who do you think your audience is at Gotham?
I don't really know, actually. I don't know who these people are. I know we get a lot of young people. This year it was a great looking, energetic crowd, I can tell you that.
Is there a type of diner you wish was more interested in the restaurant?
Yes, definitely. Over the years, our demand for late night reservations has waned somewhat. There's probably a number of reasons for that. For one, I think we're perceived as being more expensive than we once were. I've always priced and designed the menu so that we would provide a lot of value. 25 years ago, we had entrees that were between $25 and $35, and now we have entrees that are $30 to $48. Our prices and check averages have gone up, but our food costs have remained the same. For whatever reason, though, we don't get the late night crowd that we used to. We're not doing less covers, though.
The question of price actually came up in the last Sam Sifton review, which praised the restaurant but pointed to the fact that it's expensive.
It isn't an inexpensive restaurant, but we put a lot on the plate and deliver a lot of value. It's also very labor intensive. Because we've been around a while, maybe we're perceived as being expensive and special occasion. We're not seen as the hip place with the late night bar scene, although on the weekends and the fourth quarter of the year it gets close to that.
Speaking of the reviews: you look at that panel outside with however many three-star reviews from the Times, and it suggests this almost ridiculous stability. Have there been dips or periods of crisis for the restaurant?
I think what I'll say is that it has always been a lot of work. I can honestly say that in all of our years, I truly believe that the restaurant has gotten better in one area or another, whether it's the wine, the service, or the food, or something else. It has gotten better every single year. I can't point to any single year and say it was a down period. You can look at other restaurants that have been around for a while and see periods where they dip and then refocus. That has never happened to us.
Why do you think you've been able to achieve that without getting bored or letting other challenges that naturally come up in life get in the way?
It's a lot to do with my personality, I think. I think that what Gotham represents — it's a big, busy restaurant that does many millions of dollars in sales in a crazy restaurant city — is not something to be trifled with. As with any business, you want to keep your eye on it. I focus on it every day and I love cooking and I love what I do. I love Gotham too much to not care every day.
I don't take things for granted. I don't believe so much in luck. There are a couple of ways to succeed: you can either be more creative, smarter, brilliant, more artistic than anyone else, or you can simply have some of those things and work harder than everybody.
You'd put yourself in the latter category, it seems.
That's kind of the working thesis for me. This business is just so fleeting. It's always frightened me that for us to be successful on any given day, I have to rely on so many people: my purchaser, my purveyors, my prep guys. If they screw up, I'm fucked. If the reservationists make a mistake or aren't aggressive or aren't confirming tables, we'll have a shitty night with a lot of no-shows. To rely on so many people is a little frightening, so it drives me to really stay focused. I can't just chill and lay back, ever.
Shifting gears, what would you say is New American cuisine?
It depends on whom you ask.
Do you like the term?
Not really. I don't totally dislike it, but as you just brought up, what does it mean? I prefer to say that what we are doing here is modern American. What I've always done is draw from history and in some cases, modernize.
One of the reasons that we became successful and stayed successful was figuring out — and this is definitely not unique now — that you could have first-class food, informed service, a super wine list, and a nice environment with absolutely no pretension. In the early days of Gotham, the only great restaurants were the three and four star French restaurants where the captains were formal and you were treated like shit. I didn't want that.
Now, of course, Danny [Meyer] really popularized that concept, but we were doing it before. Eight months before, to be exact [laughs]. He used to live upstairs and used to hang out while they were building Union Square. He's a good friend and a good neighbor.
As a young chef, what made you consider taking that rather bold direction?
It mainly came from my experiences in France.
You worked at Guerard, right?
Guerard and Troisgros. Troisgros is like a family-owned restaurant, a hotel, and it was intense but also very jovial and friendly. We were welcomed to eat in the restaurant, for instance. Then I went to Guerard and got there a day before starting to work so that I could have dinner there. They told me I could not eat in the dining room. We had to come in through the workers' quarters and couldn't spend time in the guest areas. The food was amazing and I loved everything I learned there, but why did it have to be that way? Why does it have to be super formal? It's like that review of Le Cirque by Ruth Reichl, where she went to the restaurant, they didn't know who she was, and then treated her like shit. Then she went back, they knew who she was, and Sirio [Maccioni] was like, "The Queen of Spain is sitting at the bar, but your table is ready!"
It was a new idea back then to have a restaurant that defied that. When we got the first three-star review, everybody was super pissed. "Their waiters are wearing sneakers! How can they?"
And now it's normal for a place like that to be eligible for a great review.
Sometimes I disagree with some of the reviews in general these days, because it used to be that everything kind of weighed in in its relative importance — the quality of the space, the glassware, the flowers, the menu, the service. It wasn't just about one thing. Now you can see restaurant reviews where it can be that the food is wonderful but everything else is lacking. That's not the fault of the chefs, but of the critics.
I don't want to pick any recent examples, but a good old example is Sushi Hatsu. I was there 100 times, because I lived around the corner. If you sat in front of the old man on the right side of the sushi bar, it was some of the best fish in the world. If you were anywhere else in the restaurant, it was not the same experience. I had eaten there 50 times, and every time, they'd pretend like they hadn't seen me before. They would give you different quality soy sauce and different chopsticks if you were sitting at a table and not the sushi bar. The chairs were banged up. It was a place I don't think I'd recommend to anyone, but the New York Times went in there and gave it three stars. That pissed me off.
Here's a rather pretentious question: the only other place you've opened is a steakhouse, and you've been here for nearly 30 years. Would you say your identity is fully linked to Gotham, or would you do something different if this place was taken away from you?
One might say that of course, because I've been here for 30 years and haven't opened anything aside from the steakhouse in Miami, that is the case. But I don't necessarily feel that way. If I closed Gotham tomorrow, I would roll out a different concept and do different cuisine. I would love to do that.
You have a style that you can't deviate too much from?
Yeah, exactly. I miss doing other concepts, because we have Gotham food. We will sometimes come up with dishes and nix them because they aren't Gotham.
Do you have plans to open new concepts, then?
Can you talk about them?
No, not really [laughs].
What about the future of Gotham?
It is a constant challenge to keep the restaurant fresh and exciting. Not only do you have to do it internally, but you also have to think about promoting and marketing.
Does it ever become a burden or make you feel like you run the risk of doing something out of character to keep things fresh and relevant?
No, that never occurs to me. I'm really doing what I love to do, the way I want to do it. I don't feel like we need to do anything out of character to stay relevant. I remember getting this fancy jacket 15 years ago when we got a three-star review. It was cool at the time, and I can still wear it. There's one fundamental thing that's made us successful: delivering astonishing consistency.